It's a hit of the television season -- again. What with
What keeps people tuning into "Mad Men"? Surely it's not the convoluted plots within plots. It's the acting -- especially
Something else is at work here, too, though it may not be easily spelled out. We tune in because once again the country is in the market for a new model of masculinity, as it regularly is. Fathers used to provide one, but sons being sons, they turn elsewhere, for what does dad know? So the movies stepped in to provide a succession of models for manhood over the years. The times they're always a-changin', and so did the models available on the big screen. We traded them in regularly, like cars.
Once upon a time, there was the strong, silent type.
Styles varied. There was no common denominator among these models. Except a cluelessness about women, which is the essential male trait in all places at all times. Women were to be captivated, not understood. Except perhaps by an
Now we get
But why are they so watchable? Maybe because this soap opera for men combines two of the most potent of appeals: nostalgia and fashion.
The not so fictive
In her one insightful moment, the cool picture-perfect psychologist calls Don the advertising firm's shaman, for he represents talent as opposed to those who, if they ever had any, traded it in long ago for promotion to administration. Art understands intuitively what science must struggle to misunderstand. So that when the psychologist responds to
Time and again, Don declines to argue. At least not verbally. He doesn't have to. Not just because his face and manner are so eloquent of themselves, but because to respond to the petty would be below him, and below the intelligent viewer. So he sidesteps. ("What do you want me to say?") He makes his point without making it in words. Conflict isn't so much defused as declared at an end -- like hostilities in a war never allowed to break out. He is in control -- not of others but, more important, of himself.
Yes, there are also Don's unconvincing gaucheries -- as when he sells not only the product but himself, or acts like a swine. It's hard to believe or believe in him then. Maybe because at those points the scriptwriters have imposed this age's pop psychology on him, and he's no longer a model of masculinity but a contemporary version of some specimen out of Krafft-Ebing's "Psychopathia Sexualis." Or just a ploy when the writers resort to that most uncool of devices, sentimentality. That's when you realize you're just watching another soap opera.
If there is a single theme to such disparate productions as "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men," a single theme that explains their hypnotic attraction, however different their settings, it may be dignity -- the struggle of humans to hold onto it in their own, often enough crazy ways.
In "Mad Men," that struggle takes place in changing social times as the characters try to preserve the best of themselves and discard the worst. But the human condition being what it is, we may wind up doing the reverse. Maybe it depends on the models we choose.
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(c) 2010 Paul Greenberg